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Coming into the 2021-22 season, the question was: How badly was Kentucky basketball broken? Off the program’s worst season since the Roaring Twenties, there was reason to question whether John Calipari’s mojo had completely forsaken him.

A season later, it appears that Kentucky basketball really wasn’t so broken after all.

A collection of “the worst thing that could happen” scenarios resulted in the 2020-21 season, a few of which Calipari had a hand in, but most of which he didn’t. But with the Wildcats sitting at No. 5 and boasting a 19-4 record, Kentucky is back close to the top, if not at the top.

What has worked

The Wildcats brought in 4 veteran transfers, and while Iowa shooter CJ Fredrick has missed the season due to injury, the rest of the crew have given Kentucky maturity and an injection of skills that limited last season’s struggling squad. Chief among the newcomers is West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe. His 15.8 points and 15.2 rebounds per game has been the stuff of potential National Player of the Year campaigns. A historic rebounding rate and a surprisingly soft shooting touch have made Oscar a star in Lexington. Shooter superb Kellan Grady (12 points per game, 44.7% 3 point shooting) and crafty point guard Sahvir Wheeler (10.0 points and 7.0 assists per game) have represented a super perimeter threat and a primary ballhandler.

Freshman TyTy Washington has been inconsistent, but his all-around game has been a crucial aspect of the team. Veteran forward Keion Brooks also seems to be rounding into form.

Kentucky’s offensive efficiency has been great at times, but sloppy at others. Defensive effort has been more consistent and should help carry the Wildcats even on a less-than-hot shooting night.

What hasn’t worked

Depth is a sore spot. Reserve guard Davion Mintz has helped matters greatly, and forward Jacob Toppin has had a handful of big games. But Kentucky goes 7 players deep, and in losses to LSU and Auburn, injuries to Washington and Wheeler left Kentucky short-handed. Freshman Daimion Collins had a big game against Alabama, and any contributions from Kentucky’s bench will be key to determining just how far the Wildcats can go. But a Kentucky team with only 6 or 7 productive options can’t afford a turned ankle or an ugly Wheeler whiplash injury on a screen. Or significant foul trouble, which tends to surface in March.

Kentucky is still not a particularly big 3-point shooting team. The Wildcats have made 148 treys (35%)  and allowed 141 (29%), which could spell trouble against a good-shooting opponent. The offense can bog down, particularly if Wheeler is having an off night.

What’s left to come

Kentucky has 8 remaining regular-season games, including 4 on the road and matchups with Alabama, LSU and UT. The Wildcats are sitting at 2nd in the SEC and unless they lose 2 or more games, that should hold. A 7-1 mark down the stretch would probably keep UK around the top 5. It’s worth watching to see if the Mintz/Toppin/Collins trio can continue to contribute, or if others like Bryce Hopkins or Lance Ware get opportunities to make their way into the rotation. With Calipari’s announcement that super-recruit Shaedon Sharpe will not play, that’s a potential distraction that’s no longer on the table.

Kentucky looks solidly like the 2nd-best team in the SEC. In the conference tournament, the Wildcats’ lack of depth could be a problem. Even in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats will get 48 hours between games. That said, aside from Auburn, Kentucky is the other team with an obvious chance to win the SEC. Calipari famously resents the conference tournament, but it wouldn’t be shocking for UK to avenge their regular-season loss to Auburn.

Kentucky could sneak into a No. 1 seed but feels more like a 2 seed, which is where Joe Lunardi has the Cats. It’s all about matchups in March, and it’s hard to say too much about Kentucky’s chances without knowing who the No. 1 or 3 seeds would be in such a scenario (Baylor and Michigan State in Lunardi’s last update). But 2 months ago, there were still plenty of questions about this UK team, and most of them have been answered. Kentucky is solidly an Elite Eight team, and with the right matchups, a couple of good bench performances, and good health for Tshiebwe, the Cats could well end up back in the Final Four.